Chapter Fifteen

The only nine o'clock session on Saturday morning was an update on class-action legislation currently being debated in Congress. The topic drew a small crowd. For $5,000, Clay was determined to soak up as much as he could. Of the few present, he appeared to be the only one without a hangover. Tall cups of steaming coffee were being drained around the ballroom.

The speaker was a lawyer/lobbyist from Washington who got off to a bad start by telling two dirty jokes, both of which bombed. The crowd was all-white, all-male, a regular fraternity, but not in the mood for tasteless jokes. The presentation quickly went from bad humor to boredom. However, at least for Clay, the materials were somewhat interesting and mildly informative; he knew very little about class actions so everything was new.

At ten, he had to choose between a panel discussion on the latest in Skinny Ben developments and a presentation by a lawyer whose specialty was lead paint, a topic that sounded rather dull to Clay, so he went with the former. The room was full.

Skinny Ben was the nickname of an infamous obesity pill that had been prescribed for millions of patients. Its maker had pocketed billions and had been poised to own the world when problems began developing in a significant number of users. Heart problems, easily traceable to the drug. Litigation exploded overnight and the company had no desire to go to trial. Its pockets were deep and it began buying off the plaintiffs with huge settlements. For the past three years, mass tort lawyers from all fifty states had been scrambling to sign up Skinny Ben cases.

Four lawyers sat at a table with a moderator and faced the crowd. The seat next to Clay was empty until a feisty little lawyer rushed in at the last moment and wedged himself between the rows. He unpacked his briefcase - legal pads, seminar materials, two cell phones, and a pager. When his command post was properly arranged and Clay had inched as far away as possible, he whispered, "Good morning."

"Morning," Clay whispered back, not at all anxious to chat. He looked at the cell phones and wondered who, exactly, might he want to call at 10 A.M. on a Saturday.

"How many cases you got?" the lawyer whispered again.

An interesting question, and one Clay was certainly not prepared to answer. He had just finished the Tarvan cases and was plotting his Dyloft assault, but, at the moment, he had no cases whatsoever. But such an answer was quite insufficient in the current environment where all numbers were huge and exaggerated.

"Couple of dozen," he lied.

The guy frowned, as if this was completely unacceptable, and the conversation was iced, at least for a few minutes. One of the panelists began talking and the entire room became still. His topic was the financial report on Healthy Living, manufacturer of Skinny Bens. The company had several divisions, most of which were profitable. The stock price had not suffered. In fact, after each major settlement the stock held its own, proof that investors knew the company had plenty of cash.

"That's Patton French," the lawyer next to him whispered.

"Who's he?" Clay asked.

"Hottest mass tort lawyer in the country. Three hundred million in fees last year."

"He's the luncheon speaker, isn't he?"

"Right, don't miss it."

Mr. French explained, in excruciating detail, that approximately three hundred thousand Skinny Ben cases had been settled for about $7.5 billion. He, along with other experts, estimated that there were maybe another hundred thousand cases out there worth somewhere between $2 billion and $3 billion. The company and its insurers had plenty of cash to cover these lawsuits, and so it was up to those in the room to hustle on out there and find the rest of the cases. This fired up the crowd.

Clay had no desire to jump into the pit. He couldn't get past the fact that the short, pudgy, pompous little jerk with the microphone made $300 million in fees last year and was still so motivated to earn even more. The discussion drifted into creative ways to attract new clients. One panelist had made so much money that he had two doctors on his payroll full-time to do nothing but go from town to town screening those who'd taken Skinny Bens. Another had relied solely on television advertising, a topic that interested Clay for a moment but soon dissolved into a sad debate as to whether the lawyer should appear on television himself or hire some washed-up actor.

Oddly missing was any discussion about trial strategies - expert witnesses, whistle-blowers, jury selections, medical proof - the usual information lawyers exchanged at seminars. Clay was learning that these cases seldom went to trial. Courtroom skills were not important. It was all about hustling cases. And making huge fees. At various points during the discussion, all four panelists and several of those tossing up softball questions couldn't help but reveal that they had made millions in recent settlements.

Clay wanted to take another shower.

At eleven, the local Porsche dealer held a Bloody-Mary reception that was wildly popular. Raw oysters and Bloody Marys and nonstop chatter about how many cases one had. And how to get more. A thousand here, two thousand there. Evidently, the popular tactic was to round up as many cases as possible, then tag team with Patton French who'd be happy to include them in his own personal class action in his backyard over in Mississippi, where the judges and juries and verdicts always went his way and the manufacturer was terrified to set foot. French worked the crowd like a Chicago ward boss.

He spoke again at one, after a buffet lunch featuring Cajun food and Dixie Beer. His cheeks were red, his tongue loose and colorful. Without notes he launched into a brief history of the American tort system and how crucial it was in protecting the masses from the greed and corruption of big corporations that make dangerous products. And, while he was at it, he didn't like insurance companies and banks and multinationals and Republicans, either. Unbridled capitalism created the need for people like those hardy souls in the Circle of Barristers, those down in the trenches who were unafraid to attack big business on behalf of the working people, the little people.

At $300 million a year in fees, it was hard to picture Patton French as an underdog. But he was playing to the crowd. Clay glanced around and wondered, not for the first time, if he was the only sane one there. Were these people so blinded by the money that they honestly believed themselves to be defenders of the poor and the sick?

Most of them owned jets!

French's war stories poured forth effortlessly. A $400 million class-action settlement for a bad cholesterol drug. A billion for a diabetes drug that killed at least a hundred patients. For faulty electrical wiring put in two hundred thousand homes that caused fifteen hundred fires killing seventeen people and burning another forty, $150 million. The lawyers hung on every word. Sprinkled throughout were indications of where his money had gone. "That cost 'em a new Gulf-stream," he cracked at one point and the crowd actually applauded. Clay knew, after hanging around the Royal Sonesta for less than twenty-four hours, that a Gulfstream was the finest of all personal jets and a new one sold for about $45 million.

French's rival was a tobacco lawyer somewhere in Mississippi who had made a billion or so and bought a yacht that was 180 feet long. French's old yacht measured only 140 feet, so he traded it in for a 200footer. The crowd found this funny as well. His firm now had thirty lawyers and he needed thirty more. He was on his fourth wife. The last one got the apartment in London.

And so on. A fortune earned, a fortune spent. Small wonder he worked seven days a week.

A normal crowd would have been embarrassed by such a vulgar discussion of wealth, but French knew his audience. If anything, he energized them to make more, spend more, sue more, hustle for more clients. For an hour he was crass and shameless, but seldom boring.

Five years in OPD had certainly sheltered Clay from many aspects of modern-day lawyering. He had read about mass torts but had no idea its practitioners were such an organized and specialized group. They didn't seem to be exceptionally bright. Their strategies centered around gathering the cases and settling them, not real trial work.

French could've gone on forever, but after an hour he retired to a standing ovation, albeit an awkward one. He'd be back at three for a seminar on forum shopping - how to find the best jurisdiction for your case. The afternoon promised to be a repeat of the morning, and Clay had had enough.

He roamed the Quarter, taking in not the bars and strip clubs but the antique shops and galleries, though he bought nothing because he was overcome with the urge to hoard his money. Late in the day, he sat alone at a sidewalk cafe in Jackson Square and watched the street characters come and go. He sipped and tried to enjoy the hot chicory, but it wasn't working. Although he had not put the figures on paper, he had mentally done the math. The Tarvan fees less 45 percent for taxes and business expenses, minus what he'd already spent, left him with around $6.5 million. He could bury that in a bank and earn $300,000 a year in interest, which was about eight times what he'd been earning in salary at OPD. Three hundred thousand a year was $25,000 a month, and he could not, sitting there in the shade on a warm New Orleans afternoon, imagine how he could ever spend that much money.

This was not a dream. This was reality. The money was already in his account. He would be rich for the rest of his life and he would not become one of those clowns back at the Royal Sonesta griping about the cost of pilots or yacht captains.

The only problem was a significant one. He had hired people and made promises. Rodney, Paulette, Jonah, and Miss Glick had all left longtime jobs and put their blind faith in him. He couldn't just pull the plug now, take his money and run.

He switched to beer and made a profound decision. He would work hard for a short period of time on the Dyloft cases, which, frankly, he would be stupid to turn down since Max Pace was handing him a gold mine. When Dyloft was over, he'd give huge bonuses to his staff and close the office. He'd live the quiet life in Georgetown, traveling the world when he wanted, fishing with his father, watching his money grow, and never, under any circumstances, ever getting near another meeting of the Circle of Barristers.

He had just ordered breakfast from room service when the phone rang. It was Paulette, the only person who knew exactly where he was. "Are you in a nice room?" she asked.

"Indeed I am."

"Does it have a fax?"

"Of course."

"Gimme the number, I'm sending something down there."

It was a copy of a clipping from the Sunday edition of the Post. A wedding announcement. Rebecca Allison Van Horn and Jason Shubert Myers IV. "Mr. and Mrs. Bennett Van Horn of McLean, Virginia, announce the engagement of their daughter, Rebecca, to Mr. Jason Shubert Myers IV, son of Mr. and Mrs. D. Stephens Myers of Falls Church...." The photo, though copied and faxed more than a thousand miles was quite clear - a very pretty girl was marrying someone else.

D. Stephens Myers was the son of Dallas Myers, counsel to Presidents beginning with Woodrow Wilson and ending with Dwight Eisenhower. According to the announcement, Jason Myers had attended Brown and Harvard Law School and was already a partner in Myers & O'Malley, perhaps the oldest law firm in D.C., and certainly the stuffiest. He had created the intellectual property division and had become the youngest partner in the history of Myers & O'Malley. Other than his round eyeglasses, there appeared to be nothing intellectual about him, though Clay knew he couldn't be fair even if he wanted to. He was not unattractive but clearly no match for Rebecca.

A December wedding was planned at an Episcopal church in McLean, with a reception at the Potomac Country Club.

In less than a month she had found someone she loved enough to marry. Someone willing to stomach a life with Bennett and Barb. Someone with enough money to impress all the Van Horns.

The phone rang again and it was Paulette. "You okay?" she asked. "I'm fine," he said, trying hard. "I'm real sorry, Clay."

"It was over, Paulette. It had been unraveling for a year. This is a good thing. Now I can forget her completely."

"If you say so."

"I'm okay. Thanks for calling."

"When you coming home?"

"Today. I'll be in the office in the morning."

The breakfast arrived but he'd forgotten that he'd ordered it. He drank some juice but ignored everything else. Maybe this little romance had been brewing for some time. All she needed was to get rid of Clay, which she'd been able to do rather easily. Her betrayal grew as the minutes passed. He could see and hear her mother pulling strings in the background, manipulating their breakup, laying the trap for Myers, now planning every detail of the wedding.

"Good riddance," he mumbled.

Then he thought about sex, and Myers taking his place, and he threw the empty glass across the room where it hit a wall and shattered. He cursed himself for acting like an idiot.

How many people at that moment were looking at the announcement and thinking of Clay? Saying, "Dumped him in a hurry, didn't she?"

"Boy, that was fast, wasn't it?"

Was Rebecca thinking of him? How much satisfaction did she get in admiring her wedding announcement and thinking of old Clay? Probably a lot. Maybe a little. What difference did it make? Mr. and Mrs. Van Horn had no doubt forgotten about him overnight. Why couldn't he simply return the favor?

She was rushing, that much he knew for certain. Their romance had been too long and too intense and their breakup too recent for her to simply drop him and take up with another. He'd slept with her for four years; Myers for only a month, or less, hopefully not longer.

He walked back to Jackson Square, where the artists and tarot card readers and jugglers and street musicians were already in action. He bought an ice cream and sat on a bench near the statue of Andrew Jackson. He decided that he would call her, and at least pass along his best wishes. Then he decided he would find a blond bimbo and somehow flaunt her in front of Rebecca. Maybe he would take her to the wedding, of course in a short skirt with legs a mile long. With his money, such a woman should be easy to find. Hell, he'd rent one if he had to.

"It's over ol' boy," he said to himself, more than once. "Get a grip."

Let her go.

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